Billie Jean King

She helped change the game for women in sports.

All Illustrations by Dave Shephard

Growing up in Long Beach, California, Billie Jean King loved playing basketball, volleyball, and softball. But her life began to change in 1954, when she discovered tennis in fifth grade. After only her second time playing, King set a big goal.

“I wanted to be the best player in the world,” she says. 

She soon realized that female players faced discrimination and were treated differently than boys. When she was 12, King was left out of a team photo for wearing shorts instead of a tennis skirt. 

“I’ll show them someday,” King recalls thinking. “That was when I decided to fight for equality for the rest of my life.”

Leading the Way

Over the next decade, King’s hard work and determination paid off. In 1966, she became the top-ranked female tennis player in the world for the first time. 

Despite her success, King wasn’t satisfied. Female tennis players received less pay than men did. Also, the U.S. tennis federation held fewer tournaments for women, which meant fewer opportunities to earn money. 

In 1970, a fed-up King decided to boycott a tournament that paid the men’s champion eight times more than the women’s winner. She convinced eight other top players to join her in starting their own all-female tournament. Each agreed to be paid just one dollar.

“We decided that any girl born in this world would have a place to compete,” King says. “We were willing to give up our careers for future generations.”

The risky plan paid off and led to more tournaments with better pay for women. In 1971, King became the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in a single season. She founded the Women’s Tennis Association two years later. 

Game-Changing Law

But there was still work to do. In the early 1970s, many high schools and colleges didn’t offer team sports for girls. Those that did have girls’ teams usually gave much more funding to the boys’ teams.

In 1972, Congress passed a law called Title IX. It requires public schools to give equal opportunities to boys and girls in all school programs, including sports. Eventually, schools added more girls’ teams, and colleges offered more scholarships to female athletes.

“Title IX is one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century,” King says.

Still, some lawmakers tried to get rid of the law or weaken it. In 1973, King spoke in front of Congress in support of Title IX. A year later, she created the Women’s Sports Foundation to help girls and women reach their potential through sports. 

Not Finished Yet

King, who played her last pro match in 1990, is considered one of the top tennis players of all time. At age 78, she is still fighting tirelessly for women in sports. 

“I’m not finished yet,” she says. “It’s really important to keep lifting up others and creating opportunities.”

King reminds people that her lifelong fight for equality began when she was a kid.

“You’re not too young,” she says. “If you have a dream, go for it.”

1. Describe a time when King experienced discrimination.

2. Why does the article say there was “still work to do” in the early 1970s? How did Title IX help?

3. What advice does King give to kids?

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